Thursday, 20 December 2012

Winter birding and farewell Finland...

Today (20/12) is my last day in Finland. My first flight to Helsinki is tomorrow (21/12) morning at 06:05.

I have made the effort to get out a couple times in the last week and I am very glad I did. Last Sunday 3 of us headed up to Ounasvaara to take a walk in the snow and make a fire and have tea / coffee. But I had an ulterior motive of maybe seeing a Capercallie which I did not, but I did get to see 2 Siberian Jays which was just a great bird to see one last time and in a perfect setting.

So on Wednesday, yesterday I took one last trip to Ounasvaara on my own. I decided to visit the feeder again that I mentioned in my last post. The weather was really good, clear skies meant there was some actual light for a couple hours but it was bitterly cold at minus 20 degrees.

On the way up to the feeder a nice surprise was a Sparrowhawk that flew out of the forest across the road about 20 metres in front of me and disappeared into the forest on the other side. Species number 51 for my time here and only my second bird of prey species (saw a Hen Harrier back in the Autumn). I got to the feeder and there were plenty of Great and Blue Tits and a Willow Tit. After a few minutes 1 Crested Tit joined them. I didn't spend too long there this time as I wanted to walk through the forest and I decided to take the route of one of the nature trails which starts at the same carpark where the feeder is located.

Start of the nature trail.
Now I love going out walking and birdwatching in the winter. It is quiet and there is not as much to see the Spring but there is always something to see and if you do see something, it is usually even more special and I tend to focus on anything I see more because it might be the only thing you do see that day. There is usually no-one else around either which makes it even better. But, birding in winter in Lapland is something else. Clothing is so crucial if you want to be out for a few hours. It is impossible to be quiet crunching through a foot of snow when the forest itself is almost deadly quiet. Your binoculars freeze, the focus wheel is hard to turn and you have to be careful not to breathe out near the lenses as it means instant freezing. You have to choose whether to breathe through your nose and have your nostrils stick together or through your mouth which starts to hurt your teeth after awhile. The forest is a matrix of brilliant white snow patches and parts of dark green conifers that make your eyes go funny when looking at them for too long. The light is poor so it's harder to see things of which there are not many to see in the first place. Most of the time (unless you are at a feeder) there is not much sign of life apart from the odd Great Tit and Mountain Hare tracks in the snow. Occasionally you may see one running across your path for a split second before it is lost to your eye by it's camouflage or be lucky enough to see something interesting like a Siberian Jay which comes to investigate the noise and follows you for a 100 metres before losing interest. This basically summed up my walk apart from the Jay (this time). I have a great respect for birders here in Lapland some of who are out nearly every day carrying out Winter Bird Atlas work, according to Birdlife Finland's bird recording system, Tiira.

I didn't see too much on my walk as you can now imagine, but I did see a couple of Great Tits and a Great Spotted Woodpecker that was calling from the top of one of the trees. I did however see two Capercaillie, I think. They took off from half way up a Pine right beside me and I saw them for a split second before they were lost behind more trees. They were fairly big Capercaillie looking birds but it was dark and as I only saw them for a split second I won't be counting them on my list.

Great Spotted Woodpecker
I doubled back after awhile as it was still light enough to check the feeder again before heading home. It was a lot busier now with 7 Great Tit, 4 Blue Tit, 6 Willow Tit, 1 Nutcracker, 3 Crested Tit, 1 Female Bullfinch and another Great Spotted Woodpecker that flew past. As always the local Red Squirrel joined in too. Again the birds were not bothered by my presence at all and I stood there watching them all for half an hour knowing that for some of these species it would be my last time seeing them for a long time.

It was great to be out one last time but it is time to go home now and I am looking forward to birding back home in the Highlands again and I will be taking part in WeBS and the BTO Winter Thrushes Survey. But there will be plenty time to talk about that and reflect on my whole experience here when I have more time after Christmas when things settle down.

So Farewell Finland, it has been an experience I will never forget with some bird encounters that I will definately never forget.

Finnish Bird List additions:
51. Sparrowhawk

Friday, 14 December 2012

Update: 14th December 2012...

Well again it's been quite awhile since I wrote my last blog, almost 3 weeks. The last couple weeks have been really busy with University and completing coursework. Our time here is almost coming to an end too and there have been some goodbyes already. Myself and my girlfriend are leaving next Friday 21st. So now I have a bit more time it's now time to get a few last bits of birding done. The weather recently has been very cold and snowy which is not surprising. Last week the temperature stayed around minus 20 degrees and this week is staying around minus 10 but it hasn't really stopped snowing all week.

I had been in contact with a local birder about a feeder at Ounasvaara hill which is just across the road from my accomodation. He very kindly gave me some good directions to the feeder so that was the plan for today (14/12).

There is very little light here, down to 2-3 hours but when it is overcast and snowing like today there is not really any good light for taking photographs. But I decided to go out anyway and find this feeder. It is about minus 8 today, grey, snowing and quite windy.

The feeder I was told was close to one of the public carparks just off the road that takes you to the hotel at the top of the hill so that's where I set off. It really isn't far away and I was in the rough area in about 20mins. There was almost no birds seen on the way up apart from a Magpie. I got to the carpark which is surrounded by fairly dense forest covered in snow and I didnt locate the feeder straight away but a Nutcracker bursting out of the undergrowth gave the feeder's position away.

There were actually two feeders plus some half coconuts hanging up low down under a large Spruce tree which would have been easily missed if you didn't know. The feeders are maintained by another local birder and it was packed full of birds. The first birds I saw were Nutcrackers, 4 in total plus a variety of Tit species and a Bullfinch. I moved around to the otherside and the birds really did not seem bothered so I moved to within 2 metres and sat down on some snow covered Blaeberry (oh how I wish I worn my waterproof trousers) and waited for the birds to settle down again.

The feeder really was alive with birds. Nutcrackers, Great, Blue and Willow Tits in abundance. The longer I stayed the more birds seemed to appear with a group of 4 Bullfinch coming to feed. All these birds within 2 metres some almost seeming to nearly hit me as they moved around the trees.

I did take some photos but it was so dark and even darker under the tree that I needed the full flash for a fairly clear photo.

Nutcracker (Nucifraga caryocatactes)
Male Bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula)
I really couldn't believe how many birds there were. Nutcrackers are always fascinating to watch and they were sometimes less than a metre away from my feet. Never had such good views of Willow Tits either and there was up to 8 of them.

Willow Tit (Poecile montanus)
Blue Tit (Cyanistes caeruleus)
The highlight of the outing came about 20 minutes in when I heard the distinct call. Crested Tit! One flew in and landed on a branch not a metre away and began to feed on the coconut and on the ground. Amazing views of a bird I have only had a couple brief glimpses of back home. It was shortly joined by another and they both came and went for the half an hour as if I wasn't even there, superb, and my 50th bird on my Finnish list.
Crested Tit ( Lophophanes cristatus)

After about an hour of sitting in the snow my arse was completely numb and I was losing what very little light there was so I decided to head back home but it was an excellent and well spent hour. Just before I left a Red Squirrel joined the party and came down to feed after making sure I wasn't a threat. They look so grey and frosty here but there is no mistaking it with those ear tufts (please excuse the demon eyes!) I will definately try to get back there again before I leave.

Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris)
Finnish Bird List additions:
50. Crested Tit